By Mark Fischenich
---- — MANKATO — Less than a decade ago, a multi-million-dollar children's museum in Mankato was just a dream of some local women committed to kids and early childhood education.
By Monday night, they'd received more than $2 million in donations, generated broad community and business support and secured state grants. All they really needed was a location, and that was such a foregone conclusion that Pam Willard — wearing her Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota shirt — was sitting alone at the Mankato City Council meeting.
Still, when the council voted unanimously to authorize a 50-year lease at $1 a year for the new museum, Willard was pumping her fists in the air.
"You never know until the last vote is in," said Willard, who wasn't taking anything for granted even though council members had indicated strong preliminary support at an April work session.
A member of the museum board of directors, she said she's been involved in the project "since Day 1" in 2006.
While the organization's need to raise funds continues, the donation of the city's soon to be vacated transit bus building on Lamm Street near the downtown Cub Foods store means the money will go toward renovation and exhibits rather than real estate.
"I've heard about this thing for 10 years. I never thought it would come to fruition," said Councilman Mark Frost, applauding the museum's founders and staff. "... An amazing job."
City Manager Pat Hentges ran through the lease agreement, which provides the sweetheart deal for the museum but allows the city to get the property back if the facility doesn't succeed. It assumes that $2.5 million in donated funds will be spent to renovate and equip the museum, that the non-profit will be responsible for all building operations and upkeep, that any liability falls on the organization and that the lease will be void if the facility ever stops operating as a children's museum.
Hentges said any private sector interest in the site likely would have involved demolition of the building. The property was appraised at $150,000, primarily for the land. Because of poor soil at the site, there's a good chance any private developer would have also sought a discount on the price to offset the cost of soil corrections, according to Hentges.
"That's really brought us back around to this," he said of the request by the leaders of the Children's Museum, which is now operating at a small temporary location at Second and Cherry streets.
The museum won't be a big employer — the equivalent of about eight full-time jobs — but is projected to draw children and families downtown. Museum organizers estimate 40,000-50,000 visits a year.
Possession of the property is expected to be transferred no later than Sept. 1, and opening day for the new museum is now likely to arrive sometime in 2014.
Willard is confident visitors will be impressed. The breadth of the community support and the experience of the exhibit designers drawn to the project is creating a new museum that is beyond even the lofty dreams of the museum's founders in 2006.
"It's way beyond," she said.